Kaldellis, Anthony, ed. and trans., with David Jenkins and Stratis
Papaioannou. Mothers and Sons, Fathers and Daughters: The
Byzantine Family of Michael Psellos
.  Notre Dame, IN:  University
of Notre Dame Press, 2006.  Pp. 224.  $25.00 (pb).  ISBN 13: 978-0-

  Reviewed by Dorothy de F. Abrahamse
       California State University, Long Beach

Michael Psellos (1018-ca. 1076) was unarguably the most important
intellectual of the eleventh century and one of the most prolific and
wide-ranging writers in Byzantine history, but until recently the lack
of modern editions and translations has made it difficult for non-
specialists to access his work.   For years, R. A. Sewter's
translation of the Chronographia, Psellos' brilliant and
opinionated portrait of the Byzantine rulers of the eleventh century,
has been a staple of any course on Byzantium, and has served as an
introduction to the vivid style of Psellos, as well as his own career
and learning.  Psellos was never modest about his accomplishments.
But his vast output in fields ranging from theology and philosophy to
medicine, science and rhetoric is only now becoming accessible to
scholars.  Fortunately, Psellos studies are flourishing, as the
outcome of a recent roundtable sponsored by Notre Dame demonstrates.
[1]  A series of Teubner texts, inaugurated by the late L. G.
Westerink, is in progress, encompassing theological, philosophical
works, orations and, yet to appear, grammatical and rhetorical
treatises and letters.  Psellos's commentaries on Aristotle are in
preparation separately, and a full bibliography of Psellos manuscripts
and editions has recently appeared. [2]  But relatively little of
Psellos's writing is available in English translation for a wider
audience.  This volume represents the inaugural volume in what Anthony
Kaldellis hopes will become a series of topical Psellos translations.
The quality of the translation and introductions, creative selection
of works included, and the format provided by Notre Dame Press promise
well for the future.  We can certainly hope that selected translations
of  Psellos's writings on science, medicine and other fields will

In this volume, Anthony Kaldellis brings together the known works of
Psellos about his family, using them to illuminate not only the
history of the Psellos family, but more general aspects of women's and
family history.  The collection also provides an excellent
introduction to Byzantine rhetoric.  It includes Psellos's <i>Encomium
for his Mother</i>, an extended oration that was considered a model in
later Byzantium, and is his most important rhetorical work.  It is
paired here with a moving lament on the death of Psellos's daughter
Styliane at a young age, a court memorandum concerning the dissolution
of his adopted daughter's engagement, a short memorial to his infant
grandson, letters with family information, and a brief description of
the women's festival of St. Agathē. This dossier, composed over
several decades of the mid-eleventh century, indeed provides unique
insight into Psellos's personality and career, his family history,
and, through his mother and daughters, the roles of women and children
in an affluent extended household, and even family affection in
eleventh century Constantinople.  As the author indicates, the most
plentiful sources for Byzantine women's history describe empresses or
saints, and this collection is especially valuable for its focus on a
family of affluent court functionaries who were not members of the
leading aristocracy. (One quibble: Kaldellis's use of the modern term
"upper middle class" is misleading; it would be better to identify
their standing more specifically).  Kaldellis and his collaborators
(David Jenkins and Stratis Papaioannou) provide extended
introductions, arguments for dating, and annotations to each of the

Psellos's Encomium for his mother, the longest and best known
text in the collection, is a complex rhetorical work that defies
simple categorization. [3]  Written some years after her death, it is
in part a funeral oration modeled on the classic orations of Gregory
of Nazianzos.  But, as Kaldellis argues, it is also hagiographical,
attempting to elevate Theodote's piety to sanctity and martyrdom by
comparing her renunciation of physical beauty and extreme ascetic
practices to the sufferings of martyrs. It is equally a family history
of Psellos's parents and their descent, his sister's piety, and
includes laments for the deaths of his father and sister.  Like all
Psellos writings, it includes much autobiography, ending unusually
with an extended justification of his vast secular learning,
enumerated in a mind-boggling list of  classical and early Christian
authors and fields of learning, and a plea to the emperor to release
him from court to join a monastery.  For Kaldellis and other modern
scholars, the encomium is in reality a subtle document of political
self-defense, written to justify Psellos' secular learning at a time
he and his intellectual circle were forced from their powerful
positions in the court of Constantine IX Monomachos (1054). [4]  Some
hint of the accusations against him may be evident in the claim that
he studied and rejected the forbidden subjects of astrology and magic,
and that only by reading Aristotle, Plato, Neoplatonist philosophers,
and "all the Hellenic books and even the barbarian ones" (<i>Enc</i>.
29), could he refute arguments that contradicted Christian belief.
Psellos attributes his learning to his mother and the divine visions
that encouraged her to send him for higher education, portraying her
as the dominant figure in his upbringing.  Theodote's determined
asceticism is seen as a foil for Psellos' secular learning, and his
philosophical path is not only justified by his sainted mother's
visions, but a worthy alternative to it.  The Encomium may thus
be read as a Byzantine defense of intellectual freedom and Hellenism.

The Encomium's abstract language and deliberately indirect and
allusive rhetorical style, with its many references to a wide range of
classical, Neoplatonic and early Christian philosophers, were intended
to be read, and perhaps heard in performance, by an audience well
acquainted with its references, and some of its meanings are still
obscure.  Kaldellis's excellent translation, based on a recent edition
by U. Criscuolo, attempts to preserve these qualities, with helpful
references.  It is a work that can only be understood with careful
reading and understanding of its rhetorical and political context, but
is probably unmatched as an exemplar of the rhetorical and
intellectual currents of eleventh century Byzantium.

The Funeral Oration for his daughter Styliane, who died before the
age of marriage
, is a much more direct and emotional piece,
composed in one of the most widely used Byzantine rhetorical genres.
Psellos's oration commemorates the death from a disease that may be
smallpox of his nine-year-old daughter.  The oration includes a
detailed description of her physical beauty, and Psellos's claim that
it had already begun to attract potential bridegrooms.  Psellos gives
a vivid description of the course of the disease that took her life,
and ends with an emotional expression of grief not assuaged by the
promise of the afterlife.  Psellos's family saga continues in two
briefer translations concerning a daughter adopted after Styliane's
death and probably betrothed at age nine.  A court memorandum
(translated by David Jenkins), drafted by Psellos, records the terms
of dissolution of her engagement due to the bad behavior of her
fiancé, offering evidence of child betrothal, dowry terms, and the
sale of offices and titles in marriage arrangements.  Jenkins offers a
plausible reconstruction of the court process and the probable role of
Psellos in creating the memorandum in his introduction.  Some years
later, Psellos presented a vivid picture of himself as a doting
grandfather to a baby who must have been the son of this adopted
daughter in the short and touching memorandum To his grandson, who
was still an infant.
  A selection of letters with additional
family information (translated by Stratis Papaioannou) introduces
readers to another genre, the letter as rhetorical document, while a
final document, evidently composed by Psellos as a teaching
demonstration for students, attributes philosophical meaning to a
popular women's festival and includes some description of what was
apparently a rite including images, songs and dances for female

This varied collection serves many purposes, and I would certainly
include it in any course on the middle Byzantine period.  Kaldellis
succeeds admirably in bringing together compelling evidence for family
relations and illuminating the life course for women.  It also
provides an excellent introduction to Byzantine rhetoric, and the
strategies for understanding it.  But above all, the text provides
more insight into Psellos himself, who is always front and center in
any of his compositions.  To the customary view of Psellos as a
brilliant, egotistical, and often self-serving intellectual, these
documents also show a human and emotional father and son.  The
University of Notre Dame University Press is to be congratulated for
publishing it in an accessible and affordable format.


[1]  Reading Michael Psellos, ed. Charles Barber and David
Jenkins, especially the articles by John Duffy, "Dealing with the
Psellos Corpus: From Allatius to Westerink and the Bibliotheca
Teubneriana", and Anthony Kaldellis, "Thoughts on the Future of
Psellos-Studies, with Attention to his Mother's Encomium" (The
Medieval Mediterranean, 61; Leiden:  Brill, 2006).

[2]  Paul Moore, Iter Psellianum: a detailed listing of manuscript
sources for all works attributed to Michael Psellos, including a
comprehensive bibliography
(Toronto : Pontifical Institute of
Mediaeval Studies, 2005).

[3]  J. Walker, "The things I have not betrayed: Michael Psellos'
encomium of his mother as a defence of rhetoric", Rhetorica
22:1 (2004), pp. 49-101. Walker's translation of the Encomium
in "Michael Psellos: the Encomium of His Mother", Advances in the
history of rhetoric
, 8 (2005), pp. 239-313, appeared just before
the work reviewed here.

[4]  Intro. Enc., pp. 31-36; Walker, 2004, for a rhetorical

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